The decline in the quality of teaching in government schools can be arrested by making teachers more accountable. For this, teachers should be appointed on merit, rather than on caste and political considerations.

Many years ago, I had a colleague who doted on his only son. At the slightest excuse, he would take the baby to a doctor. However, the child always had “low grade fever”. Finally, he took the baby to a renowned doctor at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences. After examining the baby thoroughly, the doctor advised: The baby is alright; he needs not medicine, but a healthy environment and good nourishment.

Likewise, our government has been giving all kinds of medicines to keep our education system healthy. It would do better to stop all medicines, but offer a healthy ambience instead.

Let us start with primary schools. There are students, as high as in Class 8, who cannot write a sentence in their native tongue, nor be able to say whether a simple question in arithmetic is a summation, subtraction, multiplication or division.

There are probably hundreds of millions who are deemed literate only because they can scribble their name. That is how literacy is measured in India.

ARRESTING THE DECLINE

The students’ excuse for their ignorance is that the teacher never takes classes. The situation was not like this earlier. Many of the people who reached top positions in my generation (and earlier) were products of municipal and government schools.

Quality in many of those schools has all but disappeared; many of them have even been closed because few parents are willing to send their children there.

The reason for this decline is, these days, teachers are selected not for their competence, but for their caste or proximity to local politicians.

Most of the schools that remain are so poorly furnished and maintained that they have no toilets, walls are not whitewashed; at times, there are not even roofs, let alone blackboards.

The minimum the state needs to do is provide an attractive environment to schools and check that there are basic facilities, and in a well-maintained condition. They should also see to it that teachers do attend.

The State governments may offer paucity of funds as an excuse. That is not true. They pay the teachers well, but have deliberately refrained from exercising discipline. They should also select only knowledgeable teachers – irrespective of caste.

Unfortunately, I have heard politicians say that if persons from reserved castes are not good enough, they should be trained to become good. They forget that for backward classes to become good they should get the best teachers, and not incompetent ones from the same caste.

CROSS-SUBSIDY SYSTEM

If State governments feel they do not have enough money, they could let private enterprise to supplement the government finances.

For instance, they could support what are called “Charter schools” (popular in the US) where private supporters run the schools in existing premises.

If the premises are not good enough, the state could at least lease the land on which the schools stand and let the entrepreneur build better premises.

Ideally, a minimum of 20 per cent of the students should be allowed to be charged half the cost of running the school and only the remaining paid by the state to cater to the poorer 80 per cent.

Alternatively, new schools may be established in about a tenth of the villages with transport arranged for children to go there.

Then, in place of a one-teacher school, there will be at least ten teachers – and the absence of any one of them will not be a disaster it is when the single teacher absents himself or herself. The villages may be chosen wherever teachers are guaranteed the best accommodation.

RTE LIMITATIONS

There could be other solutions. The Right to Education is what the Centre has offered but it does not look like a good answer: It has a lot of compulsions but few incentives. What is needed is not compulsion but a helpful atmosphere. In particular, education inspectors should once again be brought into operation with the authority to regulate recalcitrant teachers, and above all, be kept free from political interference.

In any case, if there has to be reservation based on caste, that is best done at the earliest at age, say, five or six and not at age eighteen, after twelve years of bad education.

For instance, the best two or three per cent of poor pupils in each tehsil may be selected at age five tehsil-wise and given education absolutely free by the best available teachers. They may even be given an allowance, to cover their other costs – costs adjusted each year to inflation.

For five reasons, it is important that both rich children and the meritorious poor are mixed together. One, parents from poor families may not be articulate and may not be able to extract discipline from the teachers.

Two, if we have only meritorious students – the way the IITs used to have – one of the meritorious has to be the last in the class and that is very humiliating.

With, probably less able rich children, the meritorious poor are likely to avoid the humiliation of being the very last.

Three, rich children too need a good education, essentially because they are likely to get into positions of authority. Four, getting the the rich and the meritorious poor to learn together minimises unfair competition on the basis of influence.

Finally, the fees that the rich guarantee to pay become an indicator of quality because rich families will send their children only where education is good (and so too is child behaviour). Incidentally, good behaviour is inculcated only by well-behaved teachers.

Thus, we return to the basic issue. Good education can be imparted only by good teachers, whatever their caste may be. RTE will not work, so long as it prevents the most knowledgeable teachers from being recruited.

Read also: Quotas in education meaningless

(The author is a former Director, IIT, Madras. Response to indiresan@ gmail.com and blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(To be continued)

(This article was published on September 21, 2012)
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